I had never heard of a bear farm before.
Last week, a friend invited me to a dinner benefiting an organization called Animals Asia. I write a lot about animal issues in the United States, but what I learned that evening from the organization's founder, Jill Robinson, blew my mind:
In China and Vietnam, an endangered species called the Moon bear is "farmed" so that their bile may be extracted for use in eastern medicine to cure various ailments from headaches to hemorrhoids.
I know the word "farm" probably conjures up images of bears lounging about on stacks of hay and chewing bamboo, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Similar to the intensive confinement practices on US factory farms, Moon bears on bile farms are kept imprisoned in dark basements inside cages roughly the size of their bodies. Picture a coffin made of bars - a living coffin. The bears never see sunlight and cannot move. Aside from metal bars pressing against and digging into their body, the only touch they will ever feel is this:
A hole is cut into their stomach, and a tube is inserted so that bile may be extracted on a regular basis. Bears survive in captivity like this for decades, developing painful deformities, infections, and tumors. Many go blind from living in the dark. Some cages are forcibly compressed to prevent the animals from growing too large, causing a condition called "stress dwarfism."
Imagine being kept prisoner like this for 25 years as your skin starts to grow around metal and an infection festers from a painful open wound that is never allowed to heal. The level of fear, desperation, and depression these animals experience is unimaginable.
Enter Animals Asia.
Since 2000, Jill Robinson and her staff have been working to free the bears and put an end to this barbaric industry. In an important breakthrough, Animals Asia recently signed an agreement with the Chinese government to stop the issuing of new bear farm licenses, and negotiated the closure of the worst bile farms in Sichuan Province, whose few surviving prisoners now live out the remainder of their lives in an extraordinary sanctuary.
The official number of Moon bears in captivity is still at least 7,000. And that's not including the bear farms in Vietnam, where the practice is supposed to be illegal. Just last month a Vietnamese bear farm was raided, revealing 81 bears being used for bile.
But there is reason for hope.
A number of Chinese officials are becoming concerned over the practice of bile farming, and not just because of cruelty to animals. Recent studies now show that as a result of the horrific "manufacturing" process, bear bile is teeming with dangerous toxins and carcinogens.
You can help by visiting the Animals Asia website to send letters to members of the Chinese government, urging the banning of bear farming. On the website you can also find other ways to help save and protect this endangered species.
Please visit http://www.animalsasia.org.